Javit woke up, felling cold. He couldn’t remember that happening before, ever. He was lying across a large easy chair in his office, the front of his robes damp from a drink he must have spilled when he passed out. The balcony doors were open, allowing a chill pre-dawn breeze to blow in. He stiffly got to his feet, and staggered over the doors to manually close them. This kind of thing was not meant to happen on Chara.
“Paracletus…” he croaked.
The young man appeared.
“Good morning, Minister,” the hologram said, not looking at him. “Sleep well?”
“You know I did no such thing!” Javit said, trying to get some water from the dispenser on the wall. “Where have you been, by Nido?”
“Nowhere – everywhere. Don’t worry, everything is under control, and the only visitors not entirely happy this morning are the ones I’m still confining.”
“Any progress there?” said Javit looking round. The hologram was sitting behind Javit’s desk, looking at some data on a screen. “You don’t have to act that way around me you know. I’m not a tourist.”
“Well, your body tells me that I do. If I just appeared as a robot, or a shapeless entity, your reactions to me would not be as good. There’s no criticism of you implied, it’s just a simple empirical observation. Besides, the way you interact with me, conscious or not, is reliant upon this body I present to you. There is a reason for everything I do, you know.”
Javit finally got some water into his sticky tumbler and gulped it down. “So where were you last night?”
“I had some investigating of my own to do – as I’m about to explain. The Time Lord’s party… might be the source of something else.”
“Well? Go on!” said Javit, sitting back in the easy chair.
“I gave them some food, beds, some entertainment of sorts was available but they all went to sleep, with the exception of the Doctor – that’s what he calls himself – I gave him access to some of my processing and analytical facilities and had some equipment delivered. He worked all night. He’s really quite adept. Of course I seeded all the food and drink with more nanobots and have been pumping the maximum allowed dose into the air all night.”
“And the result…”
“Every nanobot in that room is dead. If it wasn’t for the cameras, I’d have no idea there was anyone in there.”
“Ditan’s Beard!” Javit exclaimed, jumping to his feet. “And you still have no idea what the cause of this is?”
“Despite the Doctor’s best efforts, no, though we’re still working on the premise that this is some kind of biological agent, which is the reason why we can’t detect it. It’s just coming up as biological artefacts from the people in there. And the rate it must be multiplying at… And the strangest thing – where the nanobots are not active, it’s as if I’m somehow… incapable of making decisions. I have no empirical data to inform my choices…” The hologram shook its head and wiped its eyes. “I spent most of the night checking and rechecking all my collected data to see if there was any evidence of this anywhere else, and so far, nothing. Everything else was coming back as normal, across the entire planet and the orbital facilities.”
“That’s good news for now but… we absolutely cannot let them out into the general population!” Javit said, pacing up and down.
“I know,” said Paracletus, getting up and walking around the desk. “If we can’t identify what the agent is, our options are extremely limited. Containing a biotechnical agent at nano scale, if that’s what it is… if we don’t isolate the cause and find a counter agent… we’ll have to kill them and sterilise the building.”
Javit stopped, staring at the hologram in horror. “You can’t be serious! We …. We can’t!”
“Well…” said the hologram, now shockingly appearing tired and concerned, “what do you suggest?”
The young woman woke up and stretched. Her left arm hit the large body of the ursine male she’d picked up the night before. She’d been too tired to acquiesce to his fumbling advances, but she’d let him sleep here. He was snoring softly. He was quite cute she supposed, like an old used teddy bear. She could see patches on his back where his orangey fur was turning to grey; starting to fall out altogether in some areas. She shook him awake, handed him his clothes (bermuda shorts and sandals) and pushed him out the door. She’d done enough to make sure he was infected, and after insectoids, ursines were the best carriers for the contagion.
She got some breakfast and checked her wrist computer. She’d managed to put a couple of surveillance bugs in the doctor’s apartment and surprisingly, they were still online. He hadn’t come back. He must still be confined with the humans.
Well, today she would have to do something about that. She couldn’t risk that they had discovered the infestation that she was spreading, and all the countermeasures in the world wouldn’t stop them tracing it back to her as the source. Besides, time was moving on.
And time waits for no-one.
The Doctor looked up from the microscope eyepieces as someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was the chancellery guard again. He took off his helmet and put it down on the workbench amongst the Doctor’s equipment.
“If I didn’t know better,” said the Doctor, sitting up, “I’d say you looked worn out.”
The guard was unshaven and looked as if he had gone without sleep, his hair now plastered to his head with sweat.
“Everything about my appearance is designed to ease communication, Doctor,” said Paracletus. “You could say that appearing like this is to communicate exactly that – and also to garner some sympathy perhaps. But it is a reflection of the truth. It’s a real strain to come here, where I have no nanobot input. Do you know, when I was trying to supply food and beds for Nyssa and Tegan last night, it took a massive amount of processing power. I could not read their reactions, I had to try all kinds of variations in order to try and please them to our Charan standards. For a time, I was so invested in here that I lost my omnipresent ability.” The hologram sat on a stool and put his head in his hands.
“It’s not just that, is it?” the Doctor said, standing up and stretching with his arms above his head. “You’ve realised something, perhaps for the first time since you became sentient, haven’t you? You don’t need to come here to see that I’ve made no progress in finding out what is going on. There’s something you want to discuss – don’t deny it. And for some reason you think I might be the ideal person to help you.”
The hologram looked up. “If I’m that transparent to you Doctor, then obviously there is nothing wrong with my communication protocols at least.”
“You still want me to spell it out for you? All right. You’re facing something that your programming and centuries of experience have not prepared you for – the prospect of your own mortality!” The Doctor put his hands in his pockets and took a step back, his eyebrows raised, waiting for some confirmation. The hologram nodded.
The Doctor continued, starting to pace. “These nanobots aren’t just autonomous collections of molecular circuitry. They are your senses. They have become an integral part of your neural net – a network that now covers the entire planet and the orbiting stations – an integral part of your being. Losing these isn’t just like a hardware malfunction, this is organic to you, like a humanoid losing one of their senses, but also much more… like losing not only your sense of smell but also the part of the brain that processes that information – and all the memories associated with it.”
“Precisely so, Doctor. Do continue.”
“As these nanobots die, there is the real possibility that you could lose all of them, everywhere. And beyond being crippled, this would represent… your actual death. With your self-repair and fabrication units, an inexhaustible power source, the possibility of death – other than by some completely unforeseen planetary disaster – is something that you’ve never had to consider. Until now.”
The hologram stood up and looked around. On the other side of the reception area, some of the furniture had been replaced with matching beds, one large bed for each of the guests. Set apart from the others, Redoc was sleeping – though difficult to tell as he had no eyelids – lying on his back cocooned in a blanket. One of the beds had been abandoned; Nyssa and Tegan were fast asleep in each other’s arms in another.
Paracletus sighed deeply. “Isn’t sleep supposed to be like death, Doctor?” he said. “You lose consciousness, not remembering how or when, perhaps going into a dream state – and then waking up hours later, with no recollection of the passage of time. Can you be sure that you really are the same person that went to sleep the night before? Is the brain simply rebooting its core software everyday? Is it the same person – or is this a new being just using memories of that previous life to contextualise the experiences of the new day?”
“You might well be asking the wrong person. Technically, I suppose you could say that I’ve died four times, as this is my fifth regeneration. And though I’m certainly the same being, am I really the same person? Usually we have memory and awareness of our previous selves, but this is much more like watching an actor on a stage or a screen than remembering actually doing, or being, them. Unless something goes very badly wrong then I’m fairly certain that I will regenerate. You can get attached to a previous regeneration of course…” The Doctor stared away into the distance, frowning.
The guard turned round to face the Doctor again. “You live for centuries, yet you surround yourself with fragile companions that age and die in a fraction of that time. Why is that, Doctor? Do you also have a problem with mortality?”
“Perhaps,” the Doctor declared, rocking back on his heels, “…but not my own.”
“Oh no!” Paracletus said suddenly, an expression of sheer horror on his face – and then he disappeared.
“Curious…” said the Doctor. “I wonder why it did that…”
The woman was in the piazza again, taking a holo-selfie with some Arcturans. As she again watched the reception building, she noticed that across the plaza about a dozen beings immediately disappeared, leaving groups of confused visitors. Now, she thought, was the best time to take action. She reached into an inside pocket and deactivated the decoy – a plastic packet, warmed by her own body heat, containing biomimetic gel seeded with nanobots. This hid the fact that she had none in her own body, and she could practically select whatever species she wanted to appear to be. She made her apologies to her newest new friends and strolled as fast as she dared to the admin building. Finding an access passageway, she put up her hood, backtracked, and started picking the magnetic lock on a maintenance hatch. Within minutes, the hatch popped open with a hiss of chilled escaping air, and she was inside, closing the hatch behind her.
The square tunnel was lit by glowing orange LEDs, and was wide enough for her to crawl or sit comfortably, but not crouch. She sat with her back to one of the walls and went through her pockets again pulling out various random pieces of tech and souvenirs, before snapping them together, doing a final check, them adding the power pack and activating it. A simple but effective laser pistol. She was taking a risk doing this but she had no option. She could not be linked to the nanobot deaths, not yet.
The doctor had to die.
Paracletus appeared so suddenly in Javit’s office that the already over-stressed and under-slept administrator jumped in the air.
“What are you playing at, by Nido?!” he exclaimed.
The hologram began pacing up and down, shaking its head.
“And what in the name of Ditan’s Beard are you dressed up as?”
The hologram was still in the guise of a Galifreyan chancellery guard – though sans helmet.
“It’s spreading – more nanobots are dying across the city,” it said, still pacing.
“How did it get out?” Javit demanded, going to pour himself a drink. I thought you said that building was completely impervious – even to the molecular level.”
“It can’t have got out from there – whatever it is. This was on the other side of the city and the Time Lord and his companions are all still secure. The source must be elsewhere!”
Javit took a drink, and for a moment even considered offering one to the hologram, its portrayal of despair so accurate. “Have you considered the possibility that the reason why this has avoided your best efforts is that there is no discernible outside agent? That is is some kind of… what’s the word… entropic inevitability? That the systems are simply wearing out?”
The hologram stopped pacing and looked up at Javit. “You sound like him. He said something very similar.”
“The Doctor. The Time Lord. He said that this was causing a crisis for me as it was forcing me to face up to the possibility of… death.”
“What?” Javit snorted. “What does that species know about death? They live one lifetime after another… and with their policy of non-intervention, they just watch other people die. They experience death only by standing by, refusing to help, painted into their moral superiority, and watching it happen needlessly to others. And be careful,” he said, now pointing at the hologram’s face, “he probably thinks that it would be amusing to watch you die. Think about it… a terminally-ill, highly developed, intelligent synthetic life form. The opportunities for observation, for scientific analysis. It’s a wonder we don’t have hundreds of them here.”
“Well, what if he’s right? What if you’re right? That there is no infectious agent, that the system is dying just through obsolescence or some other natural factor? What do I do? And… what happens to you, our society, this planet?”
Javit sat down in an easy chair, and took another sip from his glass.
“All things end, inevitably,” he sighed. “But we’re not beaten yet, are we?”
The Doctor looked up from screen he was working at as Nyssa came over. “Good morning, Doctor!” she said, smiling. “Don’t you want any breakfast? Some robots delivered all kinds of things, something for everyone you might say.”
At the other side of the room, Tegan and Redoc were holding plates stacked with food, talking to each other – and then Tegan suddenly howled with laughter, Redoc doing his shoulder-shrug, head-on-one-side move as he evidently delivered the punchline.
“No, not right now. Maybe later,” said the Doctor, standing up and straightening the stiffness from his back.
“Have you been working on this all night?” said Nyssa, bending to peer at the screen.
“Well… yes actually. And I still can’t find the solution. In fact, these bots are dying off so fast I have hardly any left for further analysis. They are designed to break down completely once de-energised, so all I have left is constituent elements.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Ah, well… you can look through my notes if you like, it’s possible I missed something. A different perspective, fresh pair of eyes can’t be a bad thing. Perhaps I will get something to eat…” the Doctor rubbed his eyes, and then turned to go in the direction of the tables where the food had been laid out, and then stopped suddenly, almost tripping.
“You. You have no idea why the nanobots are dying?” a soft, electronically-distorted voice said. Nyssa stood back, frantically looking for where the voice had come from.
“You, girl. Stand still. Act normally. Or I will kill him.”
“Who are you? Where are you? What do you want?” said Nyssa, taking another pace backwards.
“I want you to SHUT UP and stand still. I have a laser pistol pointed at your friend.”